Saturday, 4 June 2011

Return of the King: Nepal's royal capitals

The author in Patan’s Durbar Square. © Joyce Lee/2011/Nepal
Nepal is both one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and one of the poorest. In the capital Kathmandu, both the beauty and poverty are very much on display. The city is an odd mixture of historic grandeur and modern squalor. Its medieval buildings and squares have remained unchanged for centuries. Houses, temples and palaces are all adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings, which cover doors, windows, pillars and rafters. Stone lions guard the dusty, potholed streets and crumbling buildings. Sacred cows wander unhindered among the tractors, rickety vehicles and women carrying baskets on their heads. There is a Hindu temple on almost every street corner and square, from small shrines to local spirits and sacred trees, to huge towering monuments to the major Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu. And it is all marvellously intact – there are no office blocks, shopping malls or multi-story car parks to disrupt the historic skyline.

In the nearby cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, the historic scenery is even more magnificent. In Patan’s Durbar (Royal) Square, half a dozen temples are accompanied by two tall stone pillars. On top of one is a golden statue of Garuda, Vishnu’s bird-man mount. From his lofty perch he faces the temple of his master on one knee, his arms crossed and wings outstretched. On top of the other pillar a statue of King Yoganarendra, who ruled Patan in the 17th Century, faces the former royal palace. Above him is an uncoiled cobra, on top of which sits a small bird. Legend has it that as the long as the bird remains, the king may return. Accordingly, the palace door is left slightly ajar so he can enter with ease.

What spoils the view, unfortunately, is all the rubbish. Refuse lines the streets and piles up in squares and parks. People work, cook and eat amongst it, with women barbequing corn-on-the-cob over wood and bricks on the pavement. The smell of rubbish and occasionally urine mingles with the sweet and heady scent of spices coming from the food stalls. The only other place I’ve seen like it is Payatas, the slum town on the edge of Manila’s main rubbish dump. I saw one Kathmandu shopkeeper attempt to clear the space in front of his storefront, sweeping the street clean with a broom made from bundles of twigs. Others burned piles of rubbish in the evening, sending swirls of acrid plastic smoke across the pavements.

I’m not sure what’s gone wrong here. Nepali politicians have struggled to form a stable government since former Maoist rebels won the last general election in 2008, so maybe that’s why basic services like rubbish collection have broken down. Electricity supply is another victim, with power cuts averaging 16 hours a day. The people of Kathmandu, meanwhile, often beautifully dressed in colourful saris and dauras, their children’s eyes rimmed with kohl to keep out evil spirits, move through a kind of purgatory between high art above and filth below. “It’s really sad to see how Nepal has gone backwards in the last ten years,” our friend Esther said in Bangkok before we left. “It’s become almost medieval.”

We stopped in one of Kathmandu’s residential squares to take a few photos. Two girls came over to say hello. They were sisters: one seven, the other nine. The smallest had pigtails and a black top with flowers on. Her sister was taller with her hair tied back and riding a bike. They had excellent English. “What country are you from? Are you married? How many children do you have?” they asked. We chatted for a while, I took their picture and complemented them on their English. But as we left they brought up a subject that was sadly all too common among the children we met in Nepal. “Do you have sweets, chocolates, school pen, 10 rupees (10p)”?

Waiting for the Return of the King in Patan.
Two girls befriend us in a Kathmandu square.
© Andy Brown/2011/Nepal
In Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, we saw another disturbing result of the breakdown of public services – mob justice. We were sitting on the steps of the nine-level Maju Deval temple, where tourists and locals gather at sunset to hang out, gossip and admire the view. Below us, a line of decorated tuk-tuks waited for passengers, their drivers touting any foreigners who came past. A group of women in bright saris sat on the ground selling fruit, vegetables and spices. Next to them a pile of rubbish had built up during the day, but on balance it was peaceful and relaxing.

Suddenly, the calm was shattered. A man ran around the corner and into the square, pursued by half a dozen others. He slipped and fell, sprawling across the stone paving as his legs gave way, but leapt back up just before his pursuers reached him and ran on. Something about the desperation and fatigue in the way he ran reminded me of natural history TV sequences of a doomed gazelle pursued by lionesses. As fast as he’d arrived, he was gone, disappearing around another corner and out of the square.

Suddenly, the square was filled with dozens more people, who swarmed up the steps of the temple opposite us to get a better view of the chase. One man climbed to the top, took out a camera and started taking photos of the vigilantes and their victim. It was deeply alarming. There is something unthinking and bloodthirsty about the behaviour of a mob, which made me feel vulnerable even though we were across the square from them and were not their target. Whether the predators caught their prey, what crime he had committed or what punishment he faced at their hands I don’t know, but after a while the crowd dispersed and the square returned to normal. The vendors and hawkers resumed selling their spices and services as if nothing had happened.

I can’t help wondering if there’s a link between modern and ancient violence. The temple statues, particularly those in Bhaktapur, are incredibly gruesome. The city’s Durbar Square is home to the demon-god Bhairab, an incarnation of Shiva. He has the head of a grinning animal and one of his twelve arms holds a spear with two human heads impaled on it. With another hand he drinks blood from a cup made from a human skull. Finally, he holds the body of freshly-slain woman, cheerfully pulling out her entrails with a clawed hand. Local people still worship the 300-year-old statue. They hang flower garlands round its neck, burn incense at its feet and smear red paint around its mouth. According to legend, the sculptor’s hands were cut off after he finished the statue in order to prevent him surpassing his hideous masterpiece.

Bhairab guards the former royal palace, now a dingy museum that we explored by torchlight due to the inevitable power cut. Inside was a reminder of the country’s turbulent recent history. A sequence of paintings and photos of the Nepali royal family, going up a staircase, ends abruptly with King Birendra who died in a palace massacre in 2001. There is still a nail in the wall to his right, but the portrait of his son Gyanendra is missing. This controversial last king of Nepal, whose role in the massacre remains unclear, briefly restored an absolute monarchy before being deposed by the united forces of the Maoists and democrats. He is now a private citizen and the country is a republic.

Vegetable and spice sellers in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.
Gruesome masonry in Bhaktapur, with a garland of flowers.
© Andy Brown/2011/Nepal
Read part two of this blog »

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